I Love Playing Real People
says Michael Jayston, whose portrayals have included Beethoven, Dickens, Tsar Nicholas and now Captain Hardy
A Valerie Ward Interview
Following his performance as Nicholas in Nicholas and Alexandra, Michael Jayston has been back in historical costume playing Hardy to Peter Finch's Nelson and Glenda Jackson's Emma Hamilton in the Hal Wallis production, A Bequest To the Nation. The ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actor who says's he's basically a comedian, thoroughly enjoys playing historical characters. Remember his portrayals of Beethoven, Dickens, and Royce of Rolls Royce on TV? Now he wouldn't mind a stab at Cellini and Beethoven on celluloid.
Michael, once a fish salesman and wages clerk in his native Nottingham, never gets immersed in a character to the extent that he believes he is the person, but is aware it sounds Freudian for him to relish hiding behind false whiskers and noses. "I think most actors like to hide behind something, but as Stainislavski once said, when an actor starts believing he's the character he's not an actor anymore, he's a lunatic."
We're in his favourite Covent Garden pub. Michael is a direct, funny and articulate guy. He lives in Cobham with his wife Hearther, son Tom and a few antiques.
Michael is a sports fanatic, particularly about cricket, riding and football, and admits he has little talent for relaxing.
"Not many people could do an average day's work on a film without getting exhausted, but there's still a glamour about the business. I'm a bit old-fashioned in a way. I thing people want entertainment to help them escape, brecause life at the moment is fairly violent, sordid and decadent. Entertainment's meant to reflect society, but if it really does, we're in a helluva state.
"I love playing real people, because they're far more interesting and outrageous than fiction. Nobody can say things are too ridiculous to have really happened because history says they did.
"You've got to be shrewd and show warts and all however much you love a character. It's popular nowadays to find out about a great man and knock him to pieces, but he must have been a great man in the beginning otherwise he would never have been recognised as such."
A Bequest To The Nation concentrates on the domestic relationships between Nelson, Emma and Hardy and looks like being heady sutff, with Hardy defending his beloved sea-lord like a faithful sheep-dog while stormily hating Emma for oaring in on Nelson's career. Micheal had not seen Glenda Jackson for six years and was delighted to find her unchanged by success. "She went off early one day and I asked if she was doing night-filming. 'Oh no,' she said, 'I'm going to cook chops for my old man'."
Hal Wallis also comes in for some Jayston bouquets. "A lot of producers know nothing apart from making money. They think they know abot acting, directing, photography and lighting and they sack people left, right and centre, probably to assert their masculinity. Hal Wallis is an absolute exception. He is a modest American, which is unusual and he doesn't need to prove he's a man. And he's honest. If he doesn't like something he tells you to your face, whereas one or two others I've worked with say things behind your back and when in a roundabout way you get to hear it, they deny having said it.
"A lot of producers and directors think they've got to work an actor into the ground. I can be easily led, but like most people, not driven. And some directors go on about characterisation, but I don't want to know about all that chat. You've just got to stand up and do it.
"All actors, I don't care who they are, worry if they're out of work. I used to worry about getting old, but now it's only in as much as I won't be able to play so much sport. I think I've got about twenty years left."
Without sounding corny he says, "I'm an actor not out of self-adulation but because I like entertaining people. Acting's a peculiar business. You can't have a phoney sportsman, because he'd be found out. He can't fake it. But you get a lot of phonies in the film business."
In or out of character, Michael Jayston is not one of them.